American Paddlefish

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American paddlefish

The American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) is sometimes also called the spoonbill. It is a primitive cartilaginous fish that has remained unchanged for some 300 million years. The American paddlefish is one of only two such species in the world; the other is the Chinese paddlefish from the Yangtze River, thought to be extinct. This fish is a plankton feeder, swimming with an open mouth and using electroreceptors in its long, paddle-shaped snout (called a rostrum) to detect its microscopic prey in murky river waters. It is harvested primarily for its caviar, which closely resembles that of sturgeon. Its meat is of secondary importance, but is also delicious fresh or smoked. The average size of a mature, egg-bearing female is about four feet and 35-40 pounds, though paddlefish can reach six feet long and 200 pounds. They are one of the largest freshwater fish in America. Considering that the paddlefish has a historical range that encompasses nearly the entire swath of the central United States of America, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assign it to one community or region. The native range of the American Paddlefish extended throughout the entire Mississippi River drainage system, or to put it another way, from Pittsburgh to Yellowstone to New Orleans. Modern day production of paddlefish caviar is centered in Kentucky, due in large part to the efforts of Kentucky State University researchers and aquaculture programs. Other states also produce paddlefish through farming, including Missouri, and farming stocks are beginning in Ohio. Paddlefish caviar has a good balance between salinity, richness and earthiness. It has less ‘pop’ and texture than sturgeon caviar, tending toward a bit softer texture. The flavors of the best paddlefish caviar are long lasting, balanced, warm, buttery rich, slightly nutty, with no metallic notes or other off-flavors. The overriding quality of fresh paddlefish meat is that of firmness. This robust quality of mature paddlefish lends tremendous versatility to chefs. Younger fish are also attractive to farmers because the rapid growth allows them to quickly bring a product to market. A young paddlefish displays a superbly delicate texture and flavor. The smoked fish can be profound, and the style can range from pungently smoked and salty to delicate in flavor and texture. Paddlefish are particularly vulnerable to overfishing in the wild, since fishermen and poachers target mature, gravid females for their eggs, which would otherwise, of course, become mature paddlefish. However, the farming of paddlefish is relatively simple and avoids the many pitfalls commonly associated with fish farming, such as pollution, feeding of staple crops or other fish to farmed fish and over breeding. Since paddlefish feed on zooplankton, they do not disturb the feeding patterns of other fish, nor do they eat other fish. Hence, a farming model for paddlefish is inherently sustainable, unlike that of fish-eating salmon or grain-fed tilapia. They will not reproduce in these managed environments (they spawn only in running water), so overpopulation is never an issue. They are caught using large-mesh gill nets. This very specific gear allows other fish to swim through the large openings, ensuring there is no by-catch. Also, for caviar production, the nets are used in winter to harvest the paddlefish while most other fish are dormant. For a variety of reasons, paddlefish are best harvested in cool weather. They are sexually mature and produce eggs at about eight years of age. The eggs begin to form in November and continue to swell through the winter. The optimal time to collect the eggs is when they are large and firm. The eggs are gently cleaned, salted, and cured into caviar. Caviar freezes quite well, with a frozen life of many months. The meat is sold fresh in late winter and early spring. It also freezes well; in fact, certain preparations of paddlefish, particularly older and larger fish, benefit from freezing. During the American ‘Caviar Rush’ from about 1870 to 1900, and again in the 1990s, American paddlefish were overfished by poachers in order to supply caviar that could be falsely sold as Caspian caviar. Today, the paddlefish faces a uniquely modern challenge from another fish: the Asian carp, an invasive species in the Mississippi drainage system, which is also an adult plankton feeder. Although other American fish may not typically eat the adult paddlefish, it may yet be out-eaten in plankton by voracious, fast-maturing Asian carp.Farmed paddlefish has the potential to replace sturgeon as a primary source for caviar, thus easing pressure on sturgeon populations worldwide. There even exists the possibility that the cartilaginous fins of the paddlefish might be used in place of shark fins in Chinese-style soups. Consider the possibility that with proper farming, one threatened species-the paddlefish-might eventually provide a measure of salvation to two other fish facing intense pressure from overfishing. While wild populations of paddlefish are threatened on multiple fronts, the encouragement and wider establishment of paddlefish reservoir ranching and polyculture farming would decrease poaching pressure by making its caviar less expensive, better quality, better known, and more widely available. To see these magnificent fish protected in the wild, but farmed in astonishing sustainability would greatly help to safeguard their survival.

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